George London’s Artistry in the Opera House and in Show Tunes

Bass-baritone George London (1920 –1985) was born in Montreal to Russian Jewish immigrants. When he was 15, his family moved to Los Angeles and he attended Hollywood High School and then Los Angeles City College, where he enrolled in an opera workshop. In 1947, he toured as a member of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and tenor Mario Lanza. At the end of the tour, Lanza was snatched up by the movies. London decided to get serious about his opera career and went to Europe.

After a triumphant audition, he was immediately signed to the Vienna State Opera and made his debut as Amonasro in “Aida.” He created a sensation and went on to other starring roles. Rudolf Bing, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, saw London play the four villains in “Tales of Hoffman” and engaged him for opening night of the 1951-52 season, repeating the role of Amonasro. Reviewing the performance, Virgil Thomson wrote, “Last night [London] took his place among the greatest singing actors we have any of us known.”

London went on to acclaim in roles by Mozart (the title role in Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Puccini (Scarpia in “Tosca”), Wagner (the title role in “The Flying Dutchman,” Golaud in “Parsifal” and Wotan in “The Ring” cycle) and Mussorgsky (“Boris Godunov”).  In 1960, he became the first American to sing the title role of Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. His career ended prematurely because of health problems. When he could no longer sing, he directed operas and in 1968 he was appointed director of the Kennedy Centre in Washington. The George London Foundation, which he created, conducts an annual competition and awards prize money to the winners, a number of whom have gone on to illustrious careers, such as Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Catherine Malfitano, James Morris and Eric Owens.

Two recent releases highlight the art of George London.

“On Broadway” (on Decca) presents the versatile singer in theater songs, accompanied by the Roland Shaw Orchestra.  This was not his usual territory but he sounds at home. Of course, his dark, powerful voice is apparent from the outset. But he summons a broad array of colors and gets into the character of each piece.  Take, for example, the two songs from “Oklahoma” – “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” He lavishes care on the words, pronouncing “meadow” in a sort of regional accent so that it sounds like “meh-der.” He truly acts out the “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” expressing a young man’s concerns about impending fatherhood. London is just as convincing as an elderly gentleman waxing philosophical in “September Song.” “Ol’ Man River” is impressive vocally but rather hammy.

The filler on the album is even better: three arias from Wagner (one from “Die Walkure” and two from “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch). London’s voice is rather heavy for the pop material but he is in his element with the Wagner. It’s clear why he appeared year after year at the Bayreuth Festival.

Another new release provides the opportunity to hear London is one of his signature roles, as Don Giovanni. Andromeda has issued a 3-CD set of a live performance from 1962 in Munich with an all-star cast under the baton of Joseph Keilberth leading the Bayerisches Staatskapelle. In addition to the seductive London, the set features the great tenor Nicolai Gedda as Don Ottavio, Sena Jurinac as Donna Elvira (her photo is on the cover), Anneliese Rothenberger as a charming Zerlina and Hildegard Hillebrecht as Donna Anna. Benno Kusche is a fine Leporello with an excellent rendition of the “Catalogue Aria” in which the Don’s servant reels off a summary of the 1000+ conquests by his master. The set is no-frills—the arias and cast are listed but there is no libretto. The sound quality is good.

George London was held in the highest regard by critics, audiences and fellow artists. These recordings confirm the high level of his artistry.